Freek Hermkens, Sharon Dolmans, A. Georges L. Romme


Floyd and Wooldridge have developed a widely used model regarding the middle managers’ contribution to strategic change, in which four strategic roles for middle managers are considered: championing, synthesizing, facilitating and implementing. Although there is an extensive body of knowledge about the roles and influence of middle managers in implementing strategy, insight in which roles are activated in continuous improvement (CI) initiatives is underdeveloped and highly dispersed. Therefore, in this study we seek to understand which middle management roles (i.e. championing, synthesizing, facilitating, implementing) contribute to accomplishing CI. To explore which of these roles are activated when middle managers are confronted with a CI initiative, we developed a scenario experiment. Our findings indicate that the implementing and synthesizing roles appear to be of key importance in the context of CI initiatives, while the facilitating and championing roles appear to be less relevant.


A Vignette Study of Middle Managers’ Responses to Continuous Improvement Initiatives by Top Management

A Vignette Study of Middle Managers’ Responses to Continuous Improvement Initiatives by Top Management
Freek Hermkens, Sharon Dolmans, A. Georges L. Romme

To better understand why continuous improvement (CI) initiatives often fail and do not result in sustained changes, this paper investigates how management’s conceptualization of a continuous improvement program affects its implementation via middle managers. The study serves to identify the differences in outcomes of CI initiatives arising from implementing CI as an integral management versus an efficiency-improvement approach. This research draws on a vignette study (i.e. scenario experiment) with 107 middle managers working at one of the largest financial institutions in the Netherlands. The findings arising from this study suggest that CI is more likely to be adopted into the organizational culture, enhance the customer orientation among employees and improve the work atmosphere, when it is implemented as an integral management approach rather than as an efficiency-oriented program.

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The Role of Middle Managers in Becoming Lean: A Systematic Review and Synthesis of the Literature

The Role of Middle Managers in Becoming Lean: A Systematic Review and Synthesis of the Literature

Freek Hermkens1*, Sharon Dolmans1 and Georges Romme1

1Eindhoven University of Technology, P.O.Box 513, 5600 MB Eindhoven, Netherlands.


Aims: Many organizations adopt the Lean management approach to create a culture of continuous improvement (CI), but often fail to accomplish such a change. Previous studies have explained this high failure rate in terms of poor leadership and management, including the role of middle managers. However, the body of knowledge about the role and influence of middle management in Lean CI is underdeveloped and highly dispersed. Some earlier work suggests that middle managers can both enable and hinder CI initiatives, but a systematic overview is missing. This paper provides a systematic review of the literature to develop a mechanism-based framework that explains the success and failure of CI initiatives in which middle managers are key agents. This study therefore aims to develop an evidence-based framework of key aspects of middle management roles in CI practices drawing on Lean.

Methodology: We conducted a mechanism-based systematic review of the literature. In total, 203 publications were selected and then reviewed in detail. This review focuses on how middle managers influence the implementation and success/failure of Lean CI initiatives.

Results: The review of the literature on CI/Lean and middle management results in two frameworks. Each of these frameworks assumes that top management consistently seeks to implement a particular (archetypical) philosophy of CI/Lean: the first framework assumes an integral management approach and the second one starts from the assumption that a cost-cutting strategy is adopted. Each of these two frameworks in itself reflects some of the key tensions and challenges arising from any CI/Lean change effort, especially for middle managers. In practice, the two conditions may overlap, which creates an additional level of complexity. Overall, our review provides an understanding of the (non)conditions in which continuous improvement initiatives are likely to succeed or fail, and as such also provides a starting point for future research as well as practical work in this area.

 Full Article – PDF    Page 1-17

DOI : 10.9734/JEMT/2017/38100


Het belang van verwonderen bij continue verbetering

Op 21 april zal Freek Hermkens tijdens de NKK lezing ingaan op hoe organisaties dienstverlenende processen kunnen (her) inrichten zodat de klant optimaal bediend wordt en sturing op resultaten mogelijk wordt. Freek zal in dit kader onder andere duiding geven aan hoe je vanuit de filosofie van continu verbeteren je kunt verwonderen en hoe dit als basis kan dienen voor de inrichting van een closed loop feedback systeem richting je klanten. Hierbij zal hij ook ingaan op hoe je – ondersteund…


Deelname onderzoek rol van midden management bij continue verbetering

Om de rol van midden management binnen continu verbeteren te toetsen en verder te onderzoeken ben ik op zoek naar midden managers en top management die binnen hun organisatie betrokken zijn geweest bij een continu verbeter traject (bijvoorbeeld een lean of six sigma implementatie) en die graag hun ervaringen willen delen en deelnemen aan dit onderzoek…

Neem rechtstreeks contact met me op door een mail te sturen en kijk ook op

Creëren van continue verbetering is een enorme uitdaging. Hoe beïnvloedt midden management continue verbetering in de financiële dienstensector? Dat wil ik onderzoeken. — lees verder


Middle management in the driving seat of Customer Excellence

Middle management is an important spill when it comes to reaching Continuous Improvement and Customer Excellence. Focussing on the more hard factors like operational dashboard which facilitates result driven steering with the end result of  high customer value.  And the skills matrix which results in higher employee satisfaction and eventually higher productivity.  Combine this with soft skills like listening and observing and executing improvement (PDCA) on the end to end process for sustainable results.  

Important is that the middle manager is in the driving seat and given the responsibility to act.



The demanding playing field of Middle Management


The constant reengineering of many organizations appears to have diminished the number of middle managers in these organizations dramatically (Clarke 1998; Dopson & Stewart 1983; Floyd and Wooldridge 1994; Hayes, 2008). At the same time, Huy (2002) argued that middle managers play an important role in facilitating change in organizations. They may have value-adding ideas for making the organization better, tend to have a big informal network within the organization, and can help the organization to strike a balance between continuity and change.


Figure: Playing field of middle management

Without pretending to be complete the above figure shows the demanding playing field of middle management which we will look into in some more detail.

Middle management and continuous improvement

Implementing any Continuous Improvement (CI) method appears to demand big changes in the organization and mindset of the people involved (Drew et al. 2004). One key reason for the failure of CI methods has been said to be poor leadership (Lucey et al. 2005), and particularly the role of middle managers in facilitating sustaining change (Fine et al. 2008). Middle management can have a big role in this, through their creative and innovative skills, informal network and knowledge about what motivates employees (Huy 2001; Moss Kanter 1982). Although continuous improvement programs are often initiated by referring to ‘sustained improvement’ and similar terms, they often end up as a quick fix of problems without a deliberate effort to create and maintain the conditions needed (Bhuiyan, Baghel & Wilson 2006; Snee 2010). However, the function and position of middle managers is also a very difficult one, between operational and upper management and between operations and strategy.             

Middle management and parallel hierarchy

Another important theme, is empowerment. Empowerment of employees may cause anxiety among middle managers when they can no longer control decisions made at lower levels and formal communication channels are changed. In this respect, by empowering people middle managers have to enable employees to take responsibility for their own actions and success and give up some control.  As such, middle managers (are expected to) move away from the role of supervisor to the role of coach. As a result, they experience insecurity, which is reinforced by what is perceived to be a parallel hierarchy (Denham et al. 1997; Fenton-O’Creevy 2001; Psychogios, Wilkinson & Szamosi 2009; Holden & Roberts 2004).

Middle management and top management

For the sustainability of a CI practice, the commitment, involvement and leadership of the entire management of the organization are critical (Snee 2010; Dahlgaard & Dahlgaard-Park 2006). As culture and values are to a large extent top management driven, the role of top management in the implementation of CI is critical here. Top management needs to actively support and lead by example when dealing with empowerment. In addition, top management is responsible for creating a change-oriented culture and adopting new organization-wide ways of working. Hence, top management should stimulate a cultural change to support the CI principles throughout the organization (Mann 2009; Snee 2010).

Middle management and the work floor

Middle managers thus find themselves in a struggle to survive (Spreitzer & Quinn 1996), particularly when they perceive the empowering of their subordinates as beneficial to the organization but not beneficial to themselves (Denham et al. 1997). Middle managers have also been observed to actively block empowerment in order to preserve the power and status they felt were being reduced or lost (Denham et al 1997). In this context potential resistance of middle management to employee involvement can be observed (Fenton-O’Creevy 2001).

Middle management and peer pressure

Moreover,  the workforce may demoralize because of the pressure from downsizing and potentially losing one’s job, which may result in stressed managers and lower productivity (Harrington & Williams 2004). Downsizing has also led to reduced job security for middle managers and increased work pressure and peer pressure, because the remaining middle managers need to work harder and longer and have a higher span of control (McCann et al. 2008; Robyn & Dunkerley 1999; Keys & Bell 1982).


Continuous improvement (CI) can be seen as a state in an organization in which all members of the organization contribute to performance improvement by continuously implementing small changes in their work processes (Jørgensen et al. 2003). Where the initial focus was on cutting cost, CI methods have evolved towards a focus on changing the organizational culture (Bhasin & Burcher 2006). Some studies of the lean approach demonstrate that it requires a change in mindset and behavior among its leaders (Mann 2009). O’Rourke (2005) notes three important issues regarding leadership: the leadership’s responsibility to influence business strategy with CI, the leadership’s direct involvement in the deployment design process, and leadership’s active engagement in the implementation. Leadership is an important element when creating the urgency of change that is necessary for creating continuous improvement within an organization. Middle managers need to take a leading role. This is not an easy job because they have to change their own mindset and behavior and lead by example. Commitment and a change in behavior and attitude from the entire organization, middle management included, is a critical factor for achieving sustainability.


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